Not long ago I was encouraged to discover that a federal court had ruled that American public school students were entitled to learn to read.
In its ruling on a class-action suit brought by students in Detroit, Mich., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit declared that children in some of the city’s schools were so inadequately served that they had been “deprived of access to literacy,” “the foundational skill that allows Americans to function as citizens,” wrote New York Times reporter Dana Goldstein, paraphrasing the court.
It sounds like conditions in those Detroit schools were worse than the sad – some would say criminal – chronic underfunding of schools in Washington that led to the McCleary decision declaring the state had failed in its constitutionally mandated “paramount duty” to fully fund a basic K-12 education for all.
But the Sixth Circuit decision offers something very specific that McCleary does not. The Detroit decision says schools should provide access to literacy. In other words, children should be taught to read, a clear goal. What else could that mean? As readers they’ll have the skill needed to fully participate in society, everything from voting to getting a better job, carving out a fulfilling career. Compared to that simple demand from the Sixth Circuit, Washington’s Supreme Court was stuck with “basic education,” a concept left largely to the Legislature. That goal is disappointingly vague and has proven slippery in practice, both before and after McCleary.
Sadly, or perhaps, one hopes, helpfully, the Sixth Circuit’s words hold up a mirror to our failure, a failure in which we’re not alone among the guilty. (It’s a national problem.) Since long before I was a reporter covering Seattle schools in the 1990s and on the School Board in the early 2000s, we have sworn, and vowed and declared ourselves — our school district, our school boards, PTSAs, professional staff, everyone – to be committed to closing the achievement gap between whites and blacks.
We express that this way, as in Seattle Public Schools’ current strategic plan: “Students of color who are furthest from educational justice will read at grade level by 3rd grade.” Hasn’t happened. Won’t happen just because we keep doggedly – for decades now – entering words to that effect in “strategic” plans.
Basically, in 50 years, we’ve gotten nowhere. Here’s the 2017-18 data for Seattle: students proficient in reading at grade level, 3rd grade, whites 80 percent; blacks 35.5 percent. That’s what systemic racism looks like.
And this should be a time and place where we can end it. We can make sure that blacks and other disadvantaged children learn how to read – and read well. Just because we haven’t done it, doesn’t mean we can’t. In fact, to do this, teaching reading should be our schools’ only goal in the first three or four years of schooling. Reading is the skill that unlocks everything.
Why haven’t we done this? Schools have institutional goals, a program, curriculum, a list of things that we think must be taught, first grade, second grade, third grade and up through the years. Systemic racism (and sometimes it’s social class or the strangeness of kids from different cultures or all three) allows us to leave some kids – a lot of them – behind. The institution says move on, move up. But if children can’t read, they increasingly can’t keep up with the other work and, well, you know the result. And let’s not kid ourselves, ultimately we’re blaming it on the kids.
Coming out of the Covid-19 school closures actually gives us the chance to change this. Distance learning, partial-day schedules, uncertainty about how to do schooling which may last into the fall — all these factors further disadvantage black kids and others. Our school district, and all of them, really, are struggling to make something work but mostly trying to recreate schooling and deliver the curriculum as close as possible to the way they always have. But what if they did something really different?
Forget the curriculum. Identify every child in elementary school not reading at grade level and find ways to teach them how to read and how to read better whether through distance learning, home visits, small classes in the community, or reading-level based groupings when schools reopen. Think of it as an IEP – Individualized Education Program – for each child who needs reading instruction. After all, a youngster who’s unable to read or way behind is just as disadvantaged as someone with a physical handicap requiring an IEP.
Be inventive. Yes, you need things to read, appropriate to skill levels. But you’re teaching reading, not dinosaurs or butterflies. And, you know, a child who can read learns as they go. Reading is the skill through which they’ll build their lives. And a kid who can’t read, suffers frustration and embarrassment and gradually turns away from school, and often productive membership in the community gradually slips away.
Why haven’t black kids learned to read and succeeded in our schools? Partly it’s the structure of schooling but largely it’s money. We haven’t raised and spent the money to do the teaching necessary. You have to call that systemic racism.
Dick Lilly covered Seattle Public Schools for nearly five years as a reporter for the Seattle Times and later served one term on the Seattle School Board.